Jamie Scott, Honoris Causa

May 15, 2017:  Special

 (Ed note: What follows is the text of a May 10th address by Rev. James Scott at the 2017 United Theological College convocation presenting him a Doctor of Divinity (Honoris Causa) recognizing his long and extraordinary contribution to the growth of restorative justice in Canada, especially in the efforts for residential schools reconciliation.  His achievement is easily worthy to merit both our attention and gratitude, but Jamie’s response to his honour is to single out those who, over his life to date, contributed to his capacity for restorative justice and what it means to him.  We join in honouring him as one of the giants on whose shoulders we stand to see what is ahead.  We acknowledge the wisdom he offers for our guidance.) 

 Inspiration for Justice: “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change.” 

I have chosen two Scripture texts for today, one from 2nd Corinthians on reconciliation which has been a theme of much of my ministry, and one from the prophet Micah, a well-known passage that has become increasingly significant to me. I will also reflect on a secular text from the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. A woman who came to bear witness to Survivors’ stories simply said: “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change.” En écoutant votre histoire, la mienne peut changer. En écoutant votre histoire, je peux changer.

In contemplating today, I am profoundly aware of standing on the shoulders of so many others, and of the host of mentors, colleagues, guides and friends (some of whom are here today) who have informed, inspired, challenged, supported and accompanied my journey… opening my eyes to new realities, trusting me with their own stories, and exciting me with their passion for justice.

People like my father who, during his ministry with the poor in downtown Toronto, took me into rooming houses on Shuter Street and taught this middle-class boy to look past the foul smells and dilapidated conditions to see real people, often lonely, addicted, suffering, ill, – people who each had their own stories.

Or Marie in North Carolina, whose mother-in-law was brutally murdered, yet who ministered to inmates on death row, and who, when I visited there, changed the way I looked at offenders by telling me her story, concluding: “when you know their stories, their often secret and tragic stories, the surprise is not that they killed, but that they didn’t kill sooner and more often”.

Or long-time friend, Richard, who risked sharing with me his own story of discovering his sexual orientation, and of the difficult and painful reality of keeping that orientation hidden from his family and colleagues in a world that would not accept him as he is.

Or Father Rene Fumoleau who served the Dene in the Northwest Territories, and who told me, on an “exposure tour” to Trinidad to learn about the poor, that I didn’t have to go to the 3rd world to find people who “don’t count”. They are in Canada, he said, and they are the Indigenous people – dispossessed, marginalized, disempowered and invisible.

Or my niece Rachel, who owns and openly shares, her difficult journey with a bi-polar diagnosis so that I and others may better understand the realities of those with mental illness and the daily courage it takes to live with it in a world that stigmatizes them.

Or Fr. Tony who, after 6½ years of incarceration in the Philippines for political activism, now ministers to political prisoners in a maximum prison in Manilla where I met men who told of spending nearly 20 years awaiting trial for resisting Canadian mining companies that were driving Indigenous people off their traditional lands.

These teachers, and many others, have given me the gift of their “back stories”. In doing so, they have expanded my horizon, punctured my preconceptions and biases, challenged my ignorance and fears, pierced the cocoon of my privilege, and pointed me beyond the caricatures we are so often taught. These mentors have pulled back the curtain on those we, as a society, often prefer to render silent and invisible. They have spoken the true names of those we imprison in false “truths” that keep them “other”.

“By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change”.

The encounter with another person’s story is not only a gift. It is also a responsibility. To see the person behind the stereotype deepens our understanding of the complexities and challenges of life, often unveiling the unfairness, the suffering and the systemic injustice with which they live. Their story becomes an imperative to act.

Micah reminds us that God’s desire is that we, “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God”. In my experience, those three elements often unfold in reverse order. As I enter into the story of the other, I find myself walking with the sacred – as my humanity connects with their humanity; the sacred spark in me connects with the sacred spark in them. In this walk, I learn respect and humility, abandoning pre-conceived notions, clearing my vision, softening my attitude, melting my heart, so that compassion, kindness and mercy can flourish, and a passion to act for justice can be ignited.

“By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change”.

Nowhere has this been truer than in my experience with Indigenous peoples. I have had the painful privilege of listening to many of their stories, in particular residential school survivors.

People like Geronimo Henry who spent ten years in a residential school, and showed me where students would look hopefully out the basement window of the school down the long driveway from mid-June on, for a glimpse of their parents coming to get them for the summer — and how he realized by mid-July for nine straight years that no one was coming for him.

Or Alice who asked me to accompany her to an office in an abandoned residential school building where for the first time in 30 years, she courageously confronted the memories of the sexual abuse she had suffered there as a student.

Or the survivor who took me aside at a Presbytery meeting to tell me about the medical experiments she had been subjected to at residential school.

Survivors have courageously broken the silence about their experiences. Nearly half of the estimated 80,000 former students still living shared their stories through abuse claims lodged against the government and the churches, or before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – horrifying and chillingly consistent stories of being underfed, chronically cold, lonely, harshly disciplined and abused, – stories of humiliation, degradation, and shame, of being taught that they were inferior, that their culture and spirituality were pagan and evil, that they should be ashamed of their parents, communities, languages, culture and heritage. These stories are hard to hear, and even harder to understand. They have left survivors asking of us: “Why did your people do this to us?” and “Why did they hate us so much?”

We now recognize that these individual stories are part of a larger story…the tragic national policy to eradicate the First Peoples, to make them disappear…by outlawing their ceremonies, denigrating their culture, heritage and spirituality, stealing their lands, stripping them of political rights, and assimilating them through the indoctrination of their children at residential schools. It is a story of a profoundly broken relationship, a legacy that has been visited upon their children and their grandchildren. It is a legacy that we are living with as well.

“By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change.” En écoutant votre histoire, la mienne peut changer. En écoutant votre histoire, je peux changer.

The stories of suffering, yet strength and resilience and survival have changed me, pushing me beyond stereotypes to the real people who have lived them. And I have found myself “walking with the sacred”, deepening my compassion and strengthening my commitment to justice. One cannot enter into another person’s story and remain the same.

Chris Hrnchair experienced this too. Six months ago, the Ottawa Police Staff Sergeant posted racially derogatory comments about the suspicious drowning of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook in the Ottawa River, a forensic investigation he was supervising. Hrnchair was demoted and required to take cultural sensitivity training, but he decided to go further. He started to attend local Inuit events, talk with Inuit Elders, learn about Annie’s story, and about residential schools from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In a radio interview two weeks ago, Hrnchair said that he learned a history that he did not know but should have known. He learned a story and about a person he did not know. As he met with and offered an apology to Annie’s family, he said, “Recognizing injustice must lead to action”.

The Truth and Reconciliation process and other high profile initiatives, such as Gord Downie’s Story of Wenjak, have lifted up these hidden stories, these invisible people, this tragic history and our role in it. They have provided vehicles for our country and our church to hear what we were not prepared to listen to before, as the United Church confessed in its 1986 Apology: “We did not hear you when you shared your vision”.

Are we listening today? In the stories from Indigenous communities of teen suicides, boil water advisories, inequitable funding, poverty and overcrowding, missing women and girls, do we see the real people beyond the stereotypes and caricatures? Do we glimpse the sacred? Do we feel our hearts of stone turn into compassionate hearts of flesh, setting alight a passion for justice that will not be extinguished until things are made right, until right relationship is restored?

As these stories gain purchase in our public consciousness and take their rightful place in our national narrative, they offer a counter-weight to 150-year celebrations, demanding a sea change in public attitude and public policy by all levels of government and by Canadians in general. Justice and reconciliation require the humility to accept our own need for healing, to name the attitudes that keep us locked in a relationship of discrimination and inequality, but they also require a willingness to make systemic change, to do things differently.

It can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, we have roadmaps. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and the 46 articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provide a way forward. These are the sacred texts of today.

Among other things, the TRC calls upon the church and its theological schools to develop educational strategies that ensure that members and students learn about colonization, residential schools and why our Apologies were necessary, and about Indigenous history and spirituality. Facing our role in the residential school system also requires a re-examination of our beliefs and history, to understand how we came to accept domination and disrespect as appropriate tools of evangelism.

The churches and colleges must also continue to create new opportunities for truth-telling, for listening. It may seem that, with the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we now know the issues and the history. If we are tempted to feel that we can move on to reconciliation, we have only to remember the recent attempt of Senator Beyak to sanitize the experience of the residential schools, or to learn that not long ago the CBC closed the “comments” section of its website related to Indigenous issues because of the hate and racism of comments being posted. We have only begun the listening.

Repairing relations is a challenging and multi-generational journey. What if we saw this journey as more than long-term penance (as surely it must also be if we are to avoid trivializing the harm we have done)? What if we saw the work of reconciliation as “invitation”, a beckoning of the Spirit to enter deeply and respectfully into the stories of others, as an opportunity to re-discover our sacred connectedness, as a renewed call to incarnate a ministry of reconciliation?

There is new life in this journey. For it is not only Indigenous stories of pain and suffering that have touched me. So have stories of resilience and strength, of forgiveness and grace, of spiritual wisdom and traditional teachings. They have enriched my own faith, my own relationships, my own story. The promise of our faith is that new life can be born, that healing and reconciliation can take place, that resurrection is real. By listening to your story, my story can change.

Grace soient rendues à Dieu. Thanks be to God. “All my relations”. Amen.